When Thierry Henry the manager arrived in MLS this winter, it was a much different landscape than when Thierry Henry the player joined.
In a playing career decorated with team trophies and individual accolades across stints with Arsenal and Barcelona among others, Henry joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010 as one of the biggest stars to grace the league. He excelled in four and a half successful seasons with RBNY before he retired after the 2014 season.
Five years later, Henry is back as head coach of the Montreal Impact and can see up close MLS's rapid growth.
“Let the league grow and, I don’t know how far this league can go and it’s up to us to elevate the league, but this league has no limit," Henry told reporters on a video call Tuesday. "You need time to reach that level."
The evolution is already well underway.
MLS clubs are breaking their own transfer records, importing young talent as well as promoting their own academy standouts. Player recruitment is skewing younger, with more and more players joining the league in their prime, with a particular path from Liga MX to MLS this offseason with five teams setting new club transfer records on signings from Mexico.
“For me, the biggest thing is the fact teams are buying players from the Mexican league and managing to get players from Europe earlier," Henry said. "I don’t think that could have happened before. Teams are getting players earlier, younger age. Mexico, Argentina—I’m not going to name all the countries, but it’s a sign that the league is evolving."
Henry's Impact dipped into Europe for a number of signings, including Designated Player Victor Wanyama and young defender Luis Binks from Tottenham, as well as re-acquiring last season's leading goal scorer, Orji Okwonkwo, on loan from Bologna and Ballou Tabla from Barcelona on a permanent deal.
The group, in transition with a new manager and key transfers both in and out, enjoyed an encouraging start to the season. They advanced in the Concacaf Champions League round of 16 and took four points from their first two league games.
“It takes time," Henry said. "It took Jurgen Klopp three and a half years to do what he’s doing with Liverpool, it doesn’t happen just like that. We were kind of getting somewhere – it was early, let’s not get carried away – but guys were understanding how we wanted to play. The intensity, the togetherness, the fight. Then we had to stop.”
Henry lined his club up in a hard-working, conservative three at the back formation over their first few games. A forward who dazzled the world with his panache and goals sought to iron out the defensive side of the ball when he initially took over.
The greater principles of how he wants to play will come, but it all has to be founded on those basic tenants.
“Intensity, togetherness, never give up attitude and hard work," Henry said. "Style will come, it takes time. But you need that in abundance. We had that before we stopped, so hopefully we can have that when we start. It is early days, let’s not get carried away, but I hope to see that—and more.”